Caedmon’s godcundre gife: Miracles and the Poet as Channel for the Divine

April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

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In his 1937 study, The Manuscripts of Caedmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Death Song, Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie claims, with respect to Caedmon’s Hymn, “the problem of textual reconstruction is not especially important” (2).  Aside from a couple of ambiguities, the short poem differs “in no significant respect” between its earliest Northumbrian versions and its later West Saxon version.  The significance of the text for him is more in the study of the textual variations of manuscripts and what they tell us about the surrounding culture and dissemination of works, despite however serendipitous it may be that this early foundation of Anglo-Saxon poetry should be in praise of the creator and an account of the beginning of the world.  Bede’s account of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the composing of the hymn, of course, adds significance to the hymn’s less material qualities.  And while scholars have certainly given attention to the miracle in Bede’s account, much of the most recent work on Caedmon has been from materialist-historical perspectives, as in the 2007 study: Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede, edited by Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines, (which will be the main focus of this paper).  These studies are useful for returning to the miraculous aspects of Bede’s account; moreover, when we turn from them toward the miraculous, we can reconcile argumentative tensions in the material studies.  Let me set up one such tension.

Bede included his account of Caedmon in his Ecclesiastical History, and he famously did not translate the hymn itself into Latin.  His justification was that transferring the poem into Latin would be impossible without detriment to the dignity and decorum of the original text.  Dobbie notes that Caedmon’s Hymn was at times included in Old English as an addendum to early versions of the Ecclesiastical History, and it was included in Old English in later editions of the text.   Scholars have explored to what extent Bede’s rationale for not translating the poem tells us something about his thoughts on poetic style and song and why it was important enough to include such an apophantic account of Caedmon’s hymn in the first place.  Certainly, The Ecclesiastical History is meant to be just that, a history; but there must have been something especially extraordinary about Caedmon.

One perspective is that Caedmon was exceptional in his own stylistic performance in Old English, and scholars have wondered whether Bede’s inclusion of Caedmon was due to his innovations as a poet, or whether Caedmon codified an existing tradition, implying that the recognition of Caedmon’s talent presupposes an existing poetic tradition from which we have no prior textual records.  This is essentially Daniel P. O’Donnell’s argument, which he makes by comparing Caedmon’s Hymn both to the Germanic conventions and to stories from various ancient cultures where divine inspiration produces a poetic eloquence with spiritual content useful for evangelism.  Bede’s account, for O’Donnell, “suggests that Caedmon was valued by his contemporaries for his skill as a versifier” (50).

In tension with O’Donnell’s account, Scott DeGregorio has analyzed the placement of Caedmon within the context of Bede’s entire works, leading him to claim, “what really interests [Bede] is not versification, vernacular literature, or any other literary issue, but monasticism in its ideal guise and how it can be used as a tool for reform” (79).  In this account, Bede is more of a Political-Theologian.  DeGregorio also claims,

By taking a peasant, giving him a name, and using him to attack the learned, the Bede who authored this well-known and cherished episode adopts a stance that is, in the end, quite recognizably the stance he takes so frequently elsewhere in his vast literary output – that of a reformer keen to expose contemporary abuses and advocate change.       

While O’Donnell and DeGregorio are in disagreement as to Bede’s intentions for including Caedmon, I want to argue that in both cases, their materialism prevents a fuller understanding of the matter at hand and that a view that takes the enchanted nature of Caedmon story seriously helps to resolve their differing opinions and points to a way of perceiving consciousness in the period.

Concerning DeGregorio in particular, it’s too easy to read an underlying modern account of secular authority in his separation between Bede’s literary interests and his monasticism that risks oversimplification.  The term “secular,” as Charles Taylor has discussed at length, is itself a religious term, especially for this period.  To claim Bede’s interest is mainly in monastic governance overly emphasizes a worldly and secular – in its sense as horizontally temporal – kind of governmental order that excludes an account of Bede’s including Caedmon for the enchanted qualities surrounding his transformation, which are both literary and religious.  Now, it may be that for DeGregorio the monastic life is by definition concerned with secular temporality in the old sense of the word, but even so the enchanted is de-emphasized in his work.  And even if he is correct about Bede’s agenda as a monastic reformer, we cannot forget that the motivations for that agenda would be due to his faith, and his faith is open to enchantment of the sort that informs his inclusion of Caedmon’s Hymn.

Caedmon’s story is miraculous enchantment.  In Bede’s account, the shy, old peasant and animal caretaker removes himself nightly from a song circle because he doesn’t know how to sing.  He is visited in the night by a being who commands him to speak; he refuses at first, saying he doesn’t know how; he is prompted again; he then asks “What Shall I sing?” and is told to sing of creation.  This is a story of divine foundation, included in the Ecclesiastical History as a significant religious event.  Less overtly, it is also a linguistic political foundation in that it recognizes divine presence and visitation in Northumbria in the seventh century.  The visitation enchants the country through its continuous presence in Caedmon’s life, all the way until his happy death, of which Bede emphasizes he had a premonition.

Here is the tension.  If we believe with O’Donnell, that Bede included his account for the hymn’s exceptional literary qualities, we ought also include spiritual enchantment or inspiration as part of that technique; otherwise Bede is simply a vulgar literary critic disguised as a monk.  If, on the other hand, we think Bede as a purely rational and pragmatic monastic politician, as DeGregorio suggests, then without a religious sense of what the secular is, which would necessarily need to be informed by spirituality, Bede is also uncharacteristically vulgar.  If we combine the two, with an enchanted sense of the literary and a politically-theological view with interest in the vulgar Old-English language, the political significance of establishing a regard for poetic technique in Old English is itself spiritual or enchanted.

This enchanted view of what constitutes poetic eloquence is useful because, in attributing Bede’s interest in the apparently illiterate Caedmon to poetic technique, problems arise concerning how that technique is to be measured in terms of textual literacy and oral performance that would further complicate the arguments presented above.  As Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, among others, has argued, “those who insist that extant Old English poetry [especially pre-Alfred] is literate and monastic tend to overstate the case for Anglo-Saxon literacy” (554). My argument buffers the overstatement to which Olsen refers.  In a political-theological sense, what Caedmon tells us is that even uneducated English peasants are capable of receiving divine messages, and the divine is present and active in Northumbria.

Beyond literary style, the structure of the hymn is also telling, as it describes the creation.  Ute Schwab points out that by comparing Caedmon to his enthusiastic and evangelistic contemporary, Aldhelm, who does not receive the same treatment in Bede’s history, we can speculate that it was “because of [Caedmon’s] exclusively religious character, [that Bede] may have been more interested” (2).  Schwab’s close analysis of the poem also notes possible mystical significance in the rhythmic structure of the poem (11).  As Schwab suggests, it is not Caedmon’s mere enthusiasm that makes him special to Bede; rather, as Faith Wallis suggests, it has something to do with Bede’s recognition of something monastic both in the structure of the poem and its foundational content.  According to Wallis, Bede would have recognized and praised not so much Caedmon’s technique as his cosmology, which evidenced that Caedmon was himself a monk (82). This argument hinges on the roles of meditatio and oratorio as being becoming, or intention overcoming difference, which when we think of enchantment looks like mysticism.  The oration performs divination and overcoming of intention.

I want to take a turn here toward an enchanted account of Bede and Caedmon with regard to divination and contemplative prayer by relying on some more recent religious thinkers in order to qualify the ways we might take enchantment, mysticism and the miracle in Caedmon seriously today.  Consider the words of Thomas Merton in relation to Bede’s account:

Inner certainty depends on purification. The dark night rectifies our deepest intentions.  In the silence of this “night of faith” we return to simplicity and sincerity of heart.  We learn recollection which consists in listening for God’s will, in direct and simple attention to reality.  Recollection is awareness of the unconditional.  Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for the capacity to hear and obey him […] We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.  We wish to know his merciful will and submit to it in its totality.  These are the aims and goals of medatatio and oratio.  This preparation for prayer can be prolonged by the slow, “sapiential” and loving recitation of a favorite psalm, dwelling on the deep sense of the words for us here and now.

This is what appears to happen with Caedmon: he is metaphorically prepared, not by his own recitation a sapiential psalm, but rather by the ritual group singing from which he inherits the Germanic and Old English traditions in existence, for his retreat into the “night” of meditation where a “recollection” attend’s to God’s will he receives his visitation in his simple piety. Or, more figuratively we might suggest that in turning away from the vulgar, harp-accompanied singing and old traditions, Caedmon makes way for his visitation.  Indeed, if we add C. L. Wrenn’s idea that “the miracle was not a gift of poetry, but a revolutionary transplantation of Germanic epic poetic practice into the soil of Christian subject matter” (in Wallis 83), we perhaps get a view of the literary as transcending material presence, even if this is still a rather worldly view of the miracle.

More distinct than Merton, we might look at R. P. Poulan’s classic text on mysticism in the Catholic church, Graces of Interior Prayer, in which he distinguishes between mystical union, simple “Affective Prayer” and “Meditation”: he says, “Either we reason, and then it is meditation, or we do not reason, and then it is affective prayer” (11).  He also notes that before the 15th century, “usage of methodical mental prayer – prayer, that is to say, where the subject, method, and duration are determined – is not traceable in the Church” (37).  Concerning monastic rules “we find no definite hour assigned to mental prayer […] In a word, there was an atmosphere, a continuous life of prayer, which was less the result of one particular exercise than of everything taken as a whole” (39).  More recently, Faith Wallis has argued that it is the very subject-matter of Caedmon’s Hymn on the principles of creation that may have signified to Bede that Caedmon was more important than a competent and inspired singer: “Both the form and the content of this text illustrate the dynamic of meditation.  Meditatio begins with rumination, but its end is to make thoughts, and in monastic literature, this process was represented by images drawn from architecture” (91).

Wallis argues that the Anglo-Saxon world-hall structure informs Bede’s interest in Caedmon, due to his attention to architecture and what she calls the “monastic encyclopedia,” which would be a loose collection of material related to the natural world and synthesized through Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine”: “Bede uses the world-hall image, both in his commentaries and in his computes, to proclaim and embody stability” (107).  While Wallis’s argument is itself well-constructed, when we consider the mystical aspects of Caedmon’s experience and the nature of miracles, we can perhaps uncover something especially subtle about Bede’s decision.  In religious philosopher Anthony Flew’s work on “Miracles” he states,

Where there is as yet no strong conception of a natural order, there is little room for the idea of a genuinely miraculous event as distinct from the phenomenon of a prodigy, of a wonder, or of a divine sign.  But once such a conception of a natural order has taken really firm root, there is a great reluctance to allow that miracles have in fact occurred or even to admit as legitimate a concept of miracles. (347)

The fundamental distinction, Flew argues, is that miracles disrupt the natural order (346).  In existing as exception, they affirm that order.  Returning to Caedmon scholarship, Wallis notes Karen Jolly’s argument that “Caedmon’s hymn is about nature because it was the consequence of a mystical experience, and mystical and natural experience were synonymous in Germanic-Christian spirituality” (89).  This kind of immanent mysticism seems incongruent with Flew’s take that you need to have an established order in order for the miraculous to take place.  The implication is not merely that the story Christianizes Caedmon, but that in doing so, something especially transcendent is being recorded.  One could take two possible stances with regard to the Bede’s account of the miracle in Caedmon then: Either 1) for Bede, miracles are simply not miracles in the modern sense because in the of the immanence of the pre-Christian era, as Jolly suggests natural and mystical experience were synonymous; or 2) Bede’s account of Caedmon relies on the miraculous because the miracle, congruent with transcendent Christianity, disrupts the natural order and in doing so helps found the church geographically in the region of England and temporally with regard to meditatio and historiography.  This is congruent with an emerging secular (in the old sense of the term) monasticism beginning to distinguish between intentional contemplative prayer and affective prayer.  If the second answer is correct, then Bede’s account of Caedmon is especially important as an instance of an emerging consciousness more horizontally temporal and transcendent, founding the geographical importance of a distinct people capable of receiving communication from the divine.  It all depends on the importance one gives to miracles.

Works Cited

DeGregorio, Scott.  “Literary Contexts: Caedmon’s Hymn as a Center of Bede’s World.”  Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk.  The Manuscripts of Caedmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Death Song.  New York: Columbia UP, 1937. Print.

Flew, Anthony. “Miracles.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. Prentice Hall, 1972. 346-353. Print.

Merton, Thomas. “Contemplative Prayer.” The Secular Fraciscan. Web. 9 April 2013. http://secularfranciscans.org/i7_27

O’Donnell, Daniel P. “Material Differences: The Place of Caedmon’s Hymn in the History of Anglo-Saxon Vernacular Poetry.” Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. “Oral-Formulaic Research in Old-English Stuidies: I.” The Journal of Oral Tradition. 1:3 1986. web. 25 March 2013. http://journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/1iii/Olsen.pdf

Schwab, Ute. “The Miracles Of Caedmon.” English Studies: A Journal Of English Language And Literature 64.1 (1983): 1-17. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.

Wallis, Faith. “Caedmon’s Created World and the Monastic Encyclopedia.”  Caedmon’s Hymn and Material Culture in the World of Bede.  Ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John Hines.  Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

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